Whatever St. Patrick’s Day might mean to us today, to our cottage dwelling ancestors it was an important but simple celebration of one of our national saints.
As St. Patrick's Day occurs on March 17th it generally became thought of as 'the middle of spring' with the promise of good weather and longer evenings important to rural farmers. This also marked the time for planting potatoes but not on the day itself, which was a religious feast day, a day of rest and a welcome reprieve from Lenten fasting to enjoy meat, treats and alcohol.
For hundreds of years’ people in Ireland wore crosses to commemorate St Patrick on his feast day, with some wearing a sprig of shamrock on their hat, shoulder or lapel. According to folklore Patrick converted Irish Pagans to Christianity by using the three leaved shamrock to explain the holy trinity. In more recent times wearing the crosses became customary for children while adults wore shamrock. Over the years the crosses evolved into fabric circular rosettes decorated with crosses, harps or fabric shamrocks, and these may still be worn by Irish children today.
On the day itself, mass was attended, and afterward dinner containing meat (usually bacon, potatoes and cabbage) was eaten. As a day of rest, no farm work was undertaken and with Lent temporarily paused it became a day to enjoy alcohol for some. The alcohol consumed on St. Patrick’s Day was known as Póta Phádraig or ‘St. Patrick’s Pot’. There is a tradition known as ‘drowning the shamrock’ after a toast to St. Patrick some shamrock was tossed over the shoulder for good luck.
For many years the pubs were closed in Ireland on St. Patrick’s Day but people still ‘found a way’. Because of this the day became a focus for the Irish Temperance movement, which was an anti-alcohol, religious association which exemplified good behaviour and national pride. From the mid-19th century they held colourful parades on St Patrick’s Day which offered a celebratory teetotal alternative to alcoholic pursuits. These parades spread to Irish emigrant communities abroad and they became embedded in the international celebration of St Patrick’s day.
According to folklore, on the day of Judgement Christ will judge all other nations, while St Patrick will be the judge of the Irish.
Erskine Nicol (1825-1904) St. Patrick’s Day (1856)
Mike Cronin and Daryl Adair, The Wearing of the Green: A History of St Patrick's Day, (Routledge 2002).